An annual survey of college freshman in the U.S. has found that the number of students who define themselves as “gifted” and “ambitious” has grown yet again. Those who say they have a “strong desire to achieve” has also risen, even when their past grade performance does not reflect this self-assessment.
The American Freshman Survey, which has been around since 1966, has found that in the past four decades, students’ opinions of themselves have soared — even though test scores have gone down. Researches, lead by Jean Twenge, have also found a disconnect between the students’ assessments and their actual abilities. While they are much more likely to rate their writing abilities as “gifted,” test scores — and often their reading and writing abilities — lie far below their 1960s counterparts.
What will this skewed view of their talents mean for them? Often, it can lead to depression in adulthood.
A 2006 study found that many young adults were prone to have “ambition inflation” — in other words, their real lives did not match their expectations.
“Since the 1960s and 1970s, when those expectations started to grow, there’s been an increase in anxiety and depression,” said Twenge. “There’s going to be a lot more people who don’t reach their goals.” Twenge is also the chief researcher on another study that reveals that narcissism in college kids has risen 30 percent since 1979.
“Many Millenials think the keys of the CEO’s office should be handed to them as soon as they’re hired,” said one Gen X executive I spoke to recently (who wished to remain anonymous). “I’ve had new hires become irate when they’re not rewarded with all the goodies right away, but they don’t seem to understand that they need to put in years of hard work in order to achieve what they want in life.”
Why is this happening? Many experts point to the push in the 80s and 90s for parents and educators to focus on elevating kids’ self-esteem. This resulted in the phenomenon of “The Trophy Generation” — awards and praise being handed out to kids even if their work was mediocre or sub-par. Another factor may well be the narcissism that social media seems to breed in users — especially in adolescents, whose brains (and analytical thinking abilities) haven’t yet fully developed. Every thought, emotion and experience is Tweeted, Instagrammed and put up on Facebook, where it is shared with hundreds, if not thousands, of faceless “friends” and followers. I think this also inflates the user’s sense of importance — as well as their dependence on the approval of others. As one mom said to me recently, “While on vacation, my teen daughter agonized over which picture she should put up of herself on Facebook. She said, ‘If I put up a photo and no one ‘likes’ it, that’s like social suicide, Mom.’ She couldn’t even enjoy the vacation because she was so anxious about what others would say about her photo!”
The danger here, of course, is that while becoming more narcissistic, kids are also putting their own genuine feelings of confidence into the hands of everyone else. Now more than ever, they put themselves at the mercy of the crowd — and allow that same crowd to define them. Narcissism, after all, isn’t a healthy sense of self-worth, but a need to pump yourself up with praise and approval in order to feel okay.
Said Twenge, “What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident — loving yourself, believing in yourself — is the key to success. Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held — and it’s also untrue.’
What is the answer here for us as parents? I personally believe we need to encourage empathy, hard work, and more real-world, face-to-face interactions. Facebook and Twitter have their place, but they’re no substitute for a real conversation with a good friend. This same study revealed that college students’ beliefs in cooperation and compromise had gone down, but those are the very qualities I think we need to instill in our children as they grow up to combat narcissism and teach them how to function in the world as whole people. Instead of constantly telling our kids how great they are, we need to praise them when they work hard and make good, kind choices.
If we really want our children to have true self-worth, I think we need to encourage them to be compassionate and do things that are worthy.
Elisabeth Wilkins is the mother of one son and the Editor of Empowering Parents. She and her family live in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.